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America, America

The Perez Family and My Family (Mi Familia) are full of hardship, deprivation, bitterness, and death, yet they're ultimately optimistic. They remind us that no matter how terrible our daily lives might seem, for our immigrant predecessors, life was almost certainly worse.

These movies don't glance off of you the way most movies do. They stick with you, even haunt you, because America is a nation of immigrants who carry tales of their ancestors' hardships inside them as part of their family's living memory, and will pass them on to their children.

The two films share more than just a basic narrative of outsiders trying to build new, better lives in the United States. They share archetypal scenes that will be familiar to many immigrants and their descendants: the long, dangerous journey to America; a large family packed into a tiny room; temptation by greed and crime; a sudden shooting at what should have been a joyous public celebration; and the relentless grind of degrading, low-wage jobs and the defiantly humorous ways employees find to make them bearable.

Most of all, the movies share a melancholy, accepting quality--one borne of a precarious balance between disappointment and hope, regret and contentment. The characters of The Perez Family and Mi Familia are intimately familiar with the sadness and horror America can inflict, yet they seem to accept such things as the price of a new beginning--a duty levied in the form of heartache. They know they will persevere, and that, God willing, each successive generation will endure less and achieve more.

As Dottie Perez, a young Cuban immigrant in The Perez Family, Marisa Tomei is hunger incarnate--emotional, sexual, and material. She revels in new experiences so intensely that at times she seems to literally absorb them through her pores.

When the small vessel that bore her and her fellow immigrants to Miami during the 1980 Mariel boatlift is stopped a few hundred yards from the harbor for a routine Coast Guard boarding, she's so full of adrenaline that she dives into the waves, swims all the way to shore, then kneels in the shallows, cups her hands, and splashes herself with water from the New World's shoreline.

Watching her wriggle, flirt, and dance her way through her new life in Miami, fantasizing about all the men she can have and all the things she could buy (if only she had the money), you can't help thinking that Dottie is going to fit in just fine here. She is free of encumbrances on arrival. But she has been forced to develop new ones at the behest of the INS, which will deport anyone who isn't claimed by an already established immigrant family. So in short order, Dottie hooks up with a 13-year-old "son" named Felipe (Jose Felipe Padron) and a "grandfather" named Armando (Lazaro Perez) who's so mysteriously shell-shocked that he keeps shedding his clothes and climbing naked into the highest boughs of tall trees expecting to see Cuba in the distance.

Dottie gains a "husband," Juan Raul Perez (Alfre Molina), who she met on the boat. (The film's running gag is that very few of its Perezes are actually related. Of course, the device also serves a more serious, metaphoric function, reminding us that all its Cuban characters are bound by circumstance into a gigantic meta-family of immigrants. They are all Perezes in the way that the displaced Okies of The Grapes of Wrath are all Joads.) Juan has come to America to search for his wife, Carmela Perez (Anjelica Huston), who was separated from him 20 years ago when he became a political prisoner.

Unfortunately for Juan, Carmela has become a different person while waiting for word of his fate. She got a good job at Saks Fifth Avenue and put her brother, Angel (Diego Wallraff), and her daughter, Teresa (Trini Alvarado), through school. Her memory of her imprisoned spouse has become idealized, even a bit abstract. Now, after so many years of celibacy, she is attracted to a divorced Italian-American cop (Chazz Palmintieri).

Boil away all the plots, subplots, and sub-subplots in The Perez Family--some of them very dark and painful--and what you're left with is essentially a comedy, and a romantic comedy at that. The picture's central component is a farcical romantic triangle.

Dottie and Raul are forced by circumstance to live together in the basement of a Catholic church, working together to feed and clothe themselves and their supposed son, Felipe. While Raul pines for his real wife (to the point of spying on her at home from behind bushes and cars, too cowed by the thought of what she may have become in his absence to actually risk approaching her), Dottie gets involved with a freewheeling Anglo man she believes is sophisticated and rich, but who's really just a possessive lout who parties beyond his means. It's obvious that both Dottie and Raul will eventually have to let go of their respective illusions and realize they're destined to be together, and that Carmela will finally break down and admit her brash new love holds more promise than her old, faded one.  

For the Perezes, it's the journey that matters, and the same is true of the movie's plot; a film like The Perez Family sinks or swims on the strength of its performances and its mood. In adapting Christine Bell's novel, filmmaker Mira Nair and screenwriter Robin Swicord keep a slight distance from their characters, which gives the picture a ragged, anecdotal, and reassuring tone that keeps undercutting sentiment with earthy jokes and reminding you that this immigrant tale is merely one among millions. Swicord, who wrote last year's rapturously melodramatic adaptation of Little Women, has a lush, neatly ordered, old-movie storytelling sensibility, while Nair--who has established herself as the premier cinematic chronicler of immigrant stories with Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala--favors a more quirky, ironic tone.

The two approaches complement each other. The film takes its situations seriously and never condescends to any of its characters, even when they're venal or buffoonish. But at the same time, it manages to develop (and sustain) the colorful, whirling, lighter-than-air feel of a fine picaresque fable. The film has a lovely porous texture that allows the actors to develop moments of genuine pathos and anger within slapstick scenes.

When Juan, Dottie, and Armando sell flowers on a street corner in the heat, the indignity of their predicament gives way to playfulness when we see how Dottie approaches the job--by literally dancing her way to profit, wiggling her hips and curling her mouth into a grin that's both ecstatic and pouty, amusing female drivers and driving males into a dizzy trance.

Later, at a disco, when middle-aged Carmela gazes at Dottie (who she does not yet know) on the dance floor, the sight of the younger woman's frenetically sensual movements brings a look of profound sadness to her face. She's thinking about the years that have passed her by; she's wondering whether she still has the capacity for such an unselfconscious state of reverie.

The Perez Family is primarily a film of small moments, sometimes so small they feel almost stolen: Juan's startled expression one morning when he realizes he has embraced Dottie on the small bed they share, and that she is triumphantly teasing him, grinding her rump against his hips and calling him "Senor Hard-on"; the look of fear and resignation on a young boy's face when an old enemy suddenly appears before him, armed and prepared to shoot; the sly satisfaction in Carmela's eyes the first time Pirelli flirts with her--evidence of long-dormant sexuality reawakened.

Nair draws strong performances from her multinational cast, which wraps its collective tongue around the screenplay's Spanglish phrases with varying degrees of success. (Tomei has the most trouble, turning "Yous" into "Choos" like Pacino doing Scarface, but she's so physically comfortable with the part--a live-wired package of fleshy limbs, bobbing hips, and enormous brown eyes--that she wins you over anyway.) The actors hail from all over the globe--Cuba, Spain, the Caribbean, the United States, Mexico; there are even cameos by Indian-descended performers Sarita Choudhury and Ranjit Chowdhry, favorite members of Mira Nair's personal stock company.

The film's polyglot feel is amplified by music supervisor Jellybean Benitez's assortment of Spanish and English pop songs; Stuart Dryburgh's photography, which has the creamy vibrancy of watercolor folk art; and Mark Friedberg's appealingly jumbled production design, which creates a Miami that's both fresh and lived-in.

Perhaps the picture's most welcome surprise is Alfred Molina's subdued sexual authority. I use the word "surprise" because although Molina has done superb work in a wide range of parts over the years (he was Joe Orton's lover and killer in Prick up your Ears, the stereotypically fanatic Iranian husband in Not Without my Daughter, and a scuzzy bounty hunter in Maverick), he's never before been allowed to play a wounded romantic. He rises to the occasion with a charm and subtlety that recalls the late Raul Julia (who he resembles from certain angles). Molina doesn't have movie-handsome features; he has an almond-shaped face, a long, Roman nose, and huge, questing eyes, and the type of indistinct build that character-acting careers are built on.

But he has a movie star's sense of how to recede just deeply enough into a part that viewers want to get closer. He's never obvious. There are always two or three things going on in his face, and a couple of others that he refuses to fully divulge, which probably explains why he complements bubbly Tomei so perfectly.  

It also explains why, whenever Juan decides to drop his guard and confess his feelings, the effect is almost overpowering. In one amazing scene between Dottie and Juan, Juan brushes his hands and mouth over her body, and as she tenses up with anticipation, he eases into a soliloquy about how he intends to kiss her, in what places, what it will mean, and how she might react. It's the sexiest scene of the year, but Molina's concentration raises it to another, more profound level; listening to his low, soothing voice, you forget, as Juan and Dottie have already forgotten, that anyone could walk into that room and interrupt them at any moment.

For a thrilling instant, the lack of privacy these immigrant lovers must endure simply vanishes. Their feelings for one another have transformed a narrow bed in a subterranean room into something like Eden.

My Family (Mi Familia), the newest effort from filmmaker Gregory Nava, is simpler than the Perez Family, and it's also richer and more affecting. Where Mira Nair views her characters from the outside in, Nava takes the opposite approach and achieves an emotional directness that recalls other multigenerational epics about the promise and pitfalls of the American dream, including Giant, The Magnificent Ambersons, and the Godfather trilogy.

The film isn't a towering work of popular art on the level of those movies. It's more compact and intimate, allowing its larger meanings to emerge from carefully observed moments of human interaction. It has heft but not sweep, and the story's melodrama is rooted in a primal human grittiness that is actually more reminiscent of the novels of John Steinbeck than recent Hollywood epics.

The film concerns the changing fortunes of the Sanchez family, a clan of blue-collar Mexican immigrants who find a new home in East Los Angeles. It begins when the family's future patriarch, Jose Sanchez (Jacob Vargas of Gas Food Lodging and Mi Vida Loca), who's living in Mexico, one day decides to visit a relative in Los Angeles. Not having any idea how far away California is, he decides to walk the distance. Once there, he sends for his wife, Maria (Jennifer Lopez), and in no time they're creating a large and diverse family of boys and girls.

Vargas and Lopez are only two of nearly three dozen exceptional performers, all of whom are given at least one scene in which they can shine. Nava's movie, which he co-wrote with producer Anna Thomas, takes place over four separate time periods and each has a slightly different look and feel. But the movie doesn't sprawl. It hurtles along from moment to indelible moment with an understated urgency that recalls golden-age Hollywood melodramas. The picture doesn't waste a second; it runs two hours and feels twice as long, but in a good way.

As the older incarnations of Jose and Maria, Eduardo Lopez Rojas and Jenny Gago exude quiet, simple authority, yet they never fall into Hemingwayesque peasant mannerisms. Esai Morales, a hammy, ferociously animated actor, is terrific as the family's black sheep, the young gang leader Chucho; Edward James Olmos brings a dry wit to his role as the family's historian, Paco, who also narrates the movie, breaking up excessively intense or sentimental moments with well-timed one-liners; and Constance Marie is a reedy, guilt-tripping delight as a politically active sister who channels her family's harsh experience into a rewarding job as a social worker.

There's plenty of love and romance in Mi Familia, accompanied by many separations, reunions, marriages, births, and deaths. But as memorable as these elements are, they're eclipsed by the powerful relationship that dominates the movie's final third. In it, an ex-con named Jimmy (Jimmy Smits), who has moved to his parents' home after doing time for burglary in San Quentin, is badgered by his sister into marrying a young Central American woman named Isabel Magnana (Elpidia Carillo).

Isabel is the daughter of a slain newspaper publisher back home, and when she finds out the INS is about to deport her, she's afraid her father's killers will be waiting for her at the airport. As in The Perez Family, a marriage of convenience will become a marriage of true minds--and again, it's the journey that counts, and the intuitive, empathetic way the actors carry along as they move toward their destiny.

As Jimmy, Smits reveals a battered charisma and smoldering physicality that his previous movie roles have never tapped. But unlike Alfred Molina in The Perez Family, Smits has the handsome looks of a born screen icon--yet he plays against them with a mix of self-deprecating humor and sadness that recalls some of Paul Newman's work in the '60s.  

Beneath his facade of bitter bemusement, he's nursing some raw psychic wounds. As a child, he saw one of his brothers killed by police officers beneath an East L.A. underpass. (The scene is staged with such harrowing immediacy that it haunts us, too.) The burglary that landed him in the joint was actually a defensive act--a transparent attempt to remove himself from the neighborhood that shattered him as a boy.

It will take someone equally shattered to pull him out of his shell and help him heal.

Isabel is that person, and Elpidia Carillo--who also played a redemptive figure in her first notable English language part, in Oliver Stone's 1986 drama Salvador--pulls her performance straight from her gut. Isabel is a religious woman who believes a marriage of convenience is blasphemous, and divorce a ticket to hell; she keeps working on Jimmy, flirting with him and cajoling him, doing whatever she has to do to break down his defensive walls of bitterness.

She succeeds in a scene that ranks as one of the most touching dance sequences ever recorded on film--a langorous, funny, sexy scene in which Isabel takes Jimmy away from repairing a car and prods him into doing a mambo on the street in front of his apartment. The notion of dance as a metaphor for courtship has rarely been expressed with such precision. Soon they're holding tight to one another, laughing, and then they're upstairs in Jimmy's bed, naked, confessing their darkest fears to each other with touching frankness.

As staged by Nava, photographed by cinematographer Edward Lachman, and performed by Smits and Carillo, the scene is so intimate and emotional that it's almost too painful to watch. We feel that we're spying on the most important union of these lovers' lives; we're witnesses to the fusion of two souls. As they face each other, weeping and embracing, their coming together transcends sex. They're like two halves of a broken locket finally reunited.

The scene is indicative of Mi Familia's economy of means, and of its determination to reveal its characters in the most basic, emotional terms possible. The film is a masterwork of populist storytelling that manages to be simultaneously epic and intimate, artful and accessible. All the big events in life are represented along with plenty of smaller ones, from Pop Sanchez' conversation about the life cycle of corn with young Jimmy to a hilarious scene near the end in which a visit to the Sanchez home by a son's white future in-laws is interrupted by a naked grandchild dancing on a coffee table.

Yet the film never feels overstuffed or overdone because it's all leavened with a refreshingly earthy sense of humor, and because Nava, who cowrote the screenplay with Anne Thomas, displays astonishingly precise judgment as a dramatist, giving each scene its proper length and weight, making his points and moving deftly on. His love of his characters is based on their will to survive and persevere against the worst America can throw at them--racism, poverty, governmental injustice, family strife, even war. Nava doesn't draw a line between moments of deprivation and contentment. The two are always intertwined.

This idea is resonantly expressed in the film's final scene. The elderly Jorge and Maria Sanchez sit on their front porch, thinking back over their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren. They've endured so much misery that we're primed for a big speech--for some kind of acknowledgment that life has been cruel to them and that they deserved better.

They don't say anything of the sort. Such an impulse barely crosses their minds.

Instead, Maria says, with disarming brevity, that the Sanchez family has had a good life. Her husband thinks about it for a moment and then agrees.

"Yes," he says softly. "We have had a good life."
Beneath the simplicity of their words is a message of extraordinary complexity. It's not the sort of thing you can summarize in a lifetime, let alone a single film. The scene recalls the much-debated finale of The Deer Hunter, in which the survivors of a Pennsylvania steel town torn apart by Vietnam gather together and sing "God Bless America." When that movie was released, three short years after the war's end, many critics argued the scene was facile and vague--too ironic, or not ironic enough. But what probably frustrated them was the idea that loyalty--to one's family, community, and nation--could transcend the most horrific catastrophes imaginable.

The Sanchezes say they've had a good life for the same reason that those steel town inhabitants sang a song of patriotism--because they are alive, in good health, and surrounded by friends and loved ones, and because you have to be brave to live in a brave new world.  

My Family (Mi Familia). Fine Line. Jimmy Smits, Elpidia Carillo, Esai Morales, Jenny Gago, Edward James Olmos. Written by Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas. Directed by Gregory Nava. Now showing.

The Perez Family. Samuel Goldwyn. Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Anjelica Huston, Chazz Palmintieri. Script by Robin Swicord, from Christine Bell's novel. Directed by Mira Nair. Opens May 12.


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